Part 10: The Drop
Since they had made it back on board their mothership, the troop carrier ISC Phantom Angel, time had been a blur.
The trio had only been able to recuperate for a few hours, as their next flight was drawing near. This time it would be a proper mission, nothing like the recent freight run. Osondu, Figueroa and Van den Berg were positively excited, despite the intensity of their last flight.
The flight crew was busy preparing their new dropship for the launch sequence. All three of them were focusing on their specific checklists, making sure that the systems they were responsible for were up and running.
Before the drop, Osondu would go through a master checklist with his crew, double-checking everything. They paid no attention to the men and women of the Outer Space Infantry who were settling down in the cargo hold.
At this moment, Chief Sergeant Jeremy Ashworth, who was in charge of Bravo-Three squad, entered the cockpit to check up on the crew.
“Morning Lieutenants, Sergeant.” he greeted them, nodding to each one.
“Good morning to you too, Sergeant.” said First Lieutenant Osondu, while Lieutenant Figueroa and Sergeant Van den Berg, just nodded and continued to focus on their checklists.
“Any updates on what to expect?” Ashworth enquired.
“None at all,” the pilot replied, “should be a smooth ride all the way to the surface”
“Good,” said Ashworth, “the last thing we want is to be knocked unconscious in this tin can.”
“Be careful what you wish for, Sergeant.” was the pilot’s retort, accompanied by a wide grin.
Sergeant Ashworth took to his seat.
As the ship started moving, Sergeant Ashworth spoke over the comm to address his squad, “Bravo-Three, this is it. We’re on our way. Hold on tight and see you on the ground!”
The ship came to a halt over the open bay doors. Then the drop began.
The “drop package”, an add-on consisting of two modules with solid fuel boosters, which had been previously mounted on the small vessel, propelled them straight down, towards the planetoid’s surface. Pushing the dropship close to the manufacturer’s safety limitations, the boosters also inflicted some serious strain on its occupants.
The crew and their payload of soldiers were pushed to their limits as the negative acceleration caused blood to rush into their heads. The nosebleeds that some of them suffered of as a result did not even come close to expressing the severity of what their bodies went through.
The flight crew was used to the ordeal. Even more so than the men and women of the Outer Space Infantry, they had endured countless simulations and training flights before being cleared for active duty. In spite of this conditioning, the moment was never pleasant, only bearable.
Once the SFBs were burnt out, Osondu engaged the dropship’s ion drive at full thrust, propelling them forward, accelerating towards the planetoid’s surface. He adjusted their orbital path so that their point of contact would correspond with their designated landing area. The pilot would adjust their course as the ship got closer to the surface.
The First Lieutenant was totally focused on piloting the small craft, knowing that his navigator and gunner would alert him of any incoming danger. As long as they remained silent, he knew that the path ahead was clear.
Similar to their most recent flight, when they had ended up stranded in orbit around Prox-IV, First Lieutenant Osondu was waiting for the moment when the enemy would begin to react to their approach. The opposing forces however, remained silent. Once again, the pilot was overcome by the same awkward feeling, certain that enemy fire was imminent.
For the time being however, everything seemed calm. The pilot glanced over to his navigator’s screen, making sure that the remaining dropships were on course as well.
Unlike during the previous mission, there was no room for small-talk. Osondu, Figueroa and Van den Berg silently focused on their tasks and would only communicate if absolutely necessary.
As time went by and they continued to close the distance between themselves and the planetoid, First Lieutenant Osondu allowed himself to relax a little. They were well within range of any kind of planetary-based defence systems, and the fact that they had yet to face any opposition surely meant that the Tarhinans simply were not capable of defending Prox-IV against the ISDF’s landing operation; or so he thought.
Suddenly, a bright flash of light shone through the darkness of interplanetary space. Simultaneously, one of the dots on Lieutenant Figueroa’s screen disappeared, indicating that one of the dropships in their formation had been vaporized.
“What the...” Sergeant Van den Berg exclaimed.
“Anything on radar?” Osondu asked.
“Active scan, maximum gain!” The pilot ordered, while breaking out of formation in order to make their flight path less predictable.
The Sergeant activated the corresponding systems and waited for his screen to update. Seconds later, he felt the blood drain from his face as the scanners detected multiple objects closing in fast.
Van den Berg yelled. “Incoming!”
“Deploy countermeasures, activate point-defence systems,” Osondu responded matter-of-factly.
The gunner confirmed while following his pilot’s orders.
While Osondu’s erratic manoeuvres made it harder for ground-based defences to track and predict their flight path, the dropship’s point-defence lasers took care of any incoming surface-to-space missiles. The small craft’s armoured plating was more than capable of deflecting the debris that remained between them and the planetoid’s surface.
While dropship Bravo-Three-Delta and its contingent of soldiers were able to approach Prox-IV uncontested, the flight crew had been so focused on their own survival that they remained unaware that six more dropships and their payload had been lost to enemy fire, vaporized by ground-based plasma cannons or shredded by incoming SSM.
Once they had closed in far enough to be below the minimum range of the Tarhinan defences, First Lieutenant Osondu let out a deep breath. He glanced over to both his navigator and gunner, whose faces seemed equally more relaxed, despite the remainder of sweat that had run down their faces below the helmets, testimony to the eventful minutes that preceded.
The pilot briefly let go of his controls and stretched out as well as he could, given the restrictive suit he was wearing. He rested his hands shortly on Figueroa’s and Van den Berg’s shoulder before grasping the flight controls once again.
“That was tougher than I expected,” First Lieutenant Osondu said.
“Uneventful my ass!” Van den Berg swore, scowling at the planetoid that was approaching rapidly.
Meanwhile, Figueroa remained silent, having just checked her screen and noticed the reduced numbers of what remained of their formation.
“What’s our recommended countdown for the suicide-burn?” the pilot asked, glancing sideways at his navigator.
“Cat?” he enquired, after she failed to respond. This brought her out of her thoughts, and she replied.
“Sorry. We’ve been pre-programmed with a two-minute burn prior to landing. Nice and slow, since no one expected any resistance.”
“I feel like we’ll have to change that,” Osondu said, shaking his head slightly.
He checked his engine configuration and ran a limited diagnostic, making sure the dropship’s manoeuvring thrusters were fully operational. Once satisfied, he explained his plan to his crew.
“We’ll come in low and fast over the landing site. I want to burn as shortly as possible and not use the main drive for deceleration. Since there’s no atmosphere that means we’ll have to overload the thrusters and might burn out a few of them,” he turned to face Lieutenant Figueroa before continuing, “recalculate our burn time with max thrust, see if we can get it down to thirty seconds.”
With the computer’s help, the calculations only took a few moments. The navigator looked over to her pilot and said, “We can do it, but it’ll be a rough landing. At that rate, even with the manoeuvring thrusters pushed to the limit, we’ll be at least twice as fast as recommended and might overstress the landing gear.”
Osondu laughed, “You know what they say. A good landing is one you can walk away from.”
“A good landing it is then,” Sergeant Van den Berg added, his voice sounding determined despite his obviously forced smile.
With his crew backing him up, First Lieutenant Emenike Osondu cancelled the ship’s pre-programmed flight path, pointed the nose further towards the surface and increased the main drive’s thrust. He wanted to close the distance as fast as possible to give the enemy less time to react. They had long lost the element of surprise, but that did not mean that the mission was a failure.
Once he was uncomfortably close to the ground and the rugged terrain of Prox-IV rushed past beneath them, the pilot pointed the dropship’s nose slightly above the horizon and used the main engine to cancel out some of the downward motion. They were still a few kilometres away from their landing area and he wanted to go easy on the manoeuvring thrusters for the time being.
“Final approach,” Osondu stated.
“Active sensors secured, PDC offline,” Van den Berg responded after having readied his systems for the upcoming landing.
“Landing gear extended, systems set up for auxiliary thrusters only, main drive secured and idle,” Figueroa confirmed that the next steps on the checklist had been taken care of.
Osondu’s right hand gripped the controls firmly while his left rested on the activation switch for the manoeuvring thrusters, which had been set to maximum, so that one simple gesture would slow the dropship down, preventing them from shattering on impact.
The pilot’s gaze never left the time to impact countdown as he felt every single muscle in his body tense. He had to force himself not to activate the thrusters early, which could be just as bad as doing so too late.
Once the timer reached thirty-one seconds, he pushed the button.
Immediately, the thrusters sprang to life, causing the ship to vibrate intensely, pushing them back into their seats. Steering the ship was all but impossible, and it took every bit of strength in Osondu’s body to hold on and prevent it from rolling uncontrollably.
Each second seemed like an eternity as the timer refused to count down, stretching this moment, extending the strain on everyone’s body and senses.
Eventually, dropship Bravo-Three-Delta hit the ground hard, causing the shock absorbers to buckle. They stood the strain however and the ship came to a halt. Before the dust had settled, the atmosphere was already being pumped out of the cargo hold and the aft door opened, allowing the soldiers to disembark.
As the OSI Sergeant’s voice echoed through their comm-channel, “Bravo-Three squad! Move out and take cover!” Lieutenant Figueroa and Sergeant Van den Berg silently congratulated their Pilot, First Lieutenant Osondu, on another happy landing.
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